Rongorongo: An Indigenous Holistic Approach
Long ago, on a tiny island located in the most remote location of the Pacific and perhaps the world, a people migrated who brought with them scrolls of a mysterious hieroglyphics. This sounds like the beginning of a science fiction adventure, but it is a reality and riddle integral to human history. Their original migrating chief’s name was Hotu Matua and their island, Te Pito te Henua, the End of the Earth. Admiral Roggeveen and his crew introduced the island, today’s Rapa Nui, to colonial Europe on Easter Sunday, April 5th, 1721 and so they called it Easter Island.
Figure: Rapa Nui in the remote South Pacific from NASA
From perhaps 500 c.e. Te Pito o te Henua grew to a few thousand inhabitants. The Gonzalez expedition of 1770 found a bountiful island with several gardens, one measuring 1.5 miles by 0.75 mile, filled with sugar cane, sweet potatoes, taro, yams, white gourds and more. The islanders were skilled in fishing while casting nets from the shore, cliff diving with spears and deep sea Tuna fishing.
There was a vibrant ceremonial culture on Rapa Nui with a yearly Tangata Manu Bird-man Egg Hunt. The clan that found the first egg layed by the Sooty Tern would crown their chief as king of the island for the entire year. The clan chose a youthful contestant who was required to swim two kilometres to the island of Motu Nui, the seasonal nesting site. A tattooing rite of passage initiated this ceremony, with a great procession decorated with costume, dancing, feasting and chants. Tohunga priests read the most sacred chants from tablets of this mysterious hieroglyphs, called Tohau rongorongo writing boards. A sample of a Rongorongo writing tablet is given below:
Figure: Rongorongo writing tablet (Public Trust file)
Holding these tablets the Tohunga recited their prayers for a successful Tangata Manu Egg Hunt from stone prayer houses in the ceremonial village of Orongo high atop the volcano crater, Rano Kao. Below is an illustration of the appearance inside one of these prayer houses from the perspective of the Tohunga reciting the incantations directly off of a Rongorongo board.
Figure: Stone prayer house atop Rongorongo village.
To understand what is written on these tablets it is important to clarify the purpose of this prayer house and its sacred artifacts. There are four artifacts illustrated. The tablet itself in the lower left contains chants that assist the Bird-man in his swim to retrieve the first egg of the Sooty Tern, called the Tavake by the islanders. Some of these chants are deciphered syllable by syllable, word for word in the chapters below. In the lower right is a stone with a Bird-man carving. He is carrying the first egg and, therefore, represents the winning contestant of the Tangata-manu egg hunt. Painted on the ceiling of the stone house is a depiction of twin birds like a mirror image. One bird represents the deity of the Sun, the Creator. Rapa Nui called this primary bird-deity Tavake, Taha or Taa. Elsewhere in Polynesia this Creator and bird deity of the Sun is called, Tane. The Tangata-manu contestant is called to become the mirror reflection of this divine bird. And in retrieving the first egg of the Sooty Tern laying season, the Tangata-manu is symbolically retrieving the life that the Creator bestows upon the island for the entire year. Curiously, there is an eight-foot-tall moai statue half buried in one of these sacred prayer houses.
This statue is called, Hoa Hakanana’ia, the hidden friend. Are the carvings on the back of the Hoa statue a key in deciphering the Easter Island Tablets? This research will confirm that this statue is a key to deciphering the Easter Island tablets. These back carvings point us to a broader Polynesian mythology in our attempts to decipher the Rongorongo tablets. Notice the two birds with broken wings carved on the back shoulders. In Polyensian lore, Mu and Weka are birds with broken wings that nourish the trickster hero, Maui-potiki.
Are the carvings on the back of the Hoa statue a key to decipher the Easter Island Tablets?
Figure: Hoa Hakanana’ia[i]
Hoa Hakanana’ia, illustrated above, is the moai statue Katherine Routledge was looking for when she said, “(The Bird Cult)… is doubly interesting if it can be proved to have had at least some connection with the great statues.”[ii] This statue was central to the recitation ceremony of Orongo village, since it was located in the sacred and tapu stone houses where the Tohunga fasted and prayed for the Tangata-manu who were swimming to retrieve the first egg.
Also connecting the statue to the Rongorongo writing boards are the Rongorongo carvings on the stone giant’s back. For example, as illustrated there are three power oars on the back of the statue. The princes of the island would carry ceremonial oars, called Ao, during the Tangata-manu procession up to Orongo village. Polynesian oars, called Rapa, are carved onto the Rapa Nui tablets several different times. One such Rapa oar is illustrated below as a Rongorongo glyph on this large Reimiro neck ornament of the Rapa Nui Chief.
Figure: Reimiro neck ornament of Easter Island chief carved with the Rapa oar.
The Reimiro neck ornaments were worn by early Easter Island royalty. Does the carving on the chief’s neck ornament identify a Polynesian word or name ending in Rapa? The Maori identify the guardian of ocean migrations as Tuhinapo-Rapa. The syllables of Tu-hi-na-po unravel from the appearance of this Reimiro glyph where each section forms a syllable from the symbol it signifies, starting from the bottom two legs: TU (representing to stand); HI/hianga (to stoop or to fall); NA/nao or wha (to feel for/to reveal); PO/poi (a ball) = TU – HI – NA – PO + the RAPA oar as the Guardian of Ocean Migrations as described in the mythology of the New Zealand Maori (Dansereau, 2011; Tregear, 1891). The Easter Islanders have retained enough words in the old Rapa Nui dictionary to confirm: Tu (to crush); Higa (to fall); Naonao (a mosquito or one who feels for); Popo (a ball). Like the Rosetta Stone, the parallels from known history help to unravel formerly unknown symbols. Does the Reimiro glyph with the Rapa oar identify a means of translating Rongorongo tablet syllables and words?
Does the Reimiro glyph with the Rapa oar identify a means of translating Rongorongo?
A similar process is used for the interpretation of all Rongorongo hieroglyphs: the Rapa oar serves as a flag glyph; the study of these flag glyphs lead to Rosetta Stone like parallels in the broader Polynesian mythology; syllables begin to verify themselves as they continuously fit into the words and sentences of these Rongorongo chants. This method of decipherment has identified several chants and enabled the decipherment of significant portions of the Rongorongo tablets in the chapters below. These chants also helps to unravel the remarkable mystery of the Tangata Manu Birdman Ceremony as they relate to the 887 giant statues on this island.
This map of Rapa Nui illustrates the location of Orongo village beside the Rano Kao crator and close to the island of Motu-nui, where the Sooty Terns seasonally nest. The contestants of the Egg Hunt represent various chiefs from corresponding tribes and clans across the island. The first to find the egg enables his own chief to rule the island for the year. The contestant is then given a sacred house beside Rano Raraku, the volcano crater where most of the 887 statues were carved. He lives at this house, called Orohie, in solitude and prayer. For the entire year the islanders must bring food offerings to feed him like a young bird fed by his parents. Do these Birdman analogies in Rapa Nui ceremony appear in the symbols carved on the Rongorongo writing boards?
There is a relationship between the carving of the statues and the tattoo carving at the beginning of the Tangata-manu ceremony. That is, not only the birds, but also the statues themselves are models for the rite of passage of the Tangata-manu. The numerous statues hatch from the volcano quarry, much like young birds. These statues are transported to the coastal grave platforms, called Ahu. The largest of these platforms rests on the shore near Rano Raraku and is called, Ahu Tonga-riki. Upon Tonga-riki stand 15 moai statues averaging 15 feet in height. Together, the 887 moai statues appear to represent a giant mythical landscape. This landscape is found in broader Polynesian mythology again telling of the exploits of Maui the trickster hero and deciphered below in the chapter called, Maui’s Ball Game – the Tattoo Soothing Chant.
Do the Birdmen in Rapa Nui ceremony appear carved on the Rongorongo writing boards?
The sacred writing boards numbered in the hundreds and were distributed by the priests to the households throughout Rapa Nui. The sacred tablets were wrapped in hair and then in reeds and hung reverently in the houses. These tablet owners met at the official recitation ceremony of Anakena[iii] at the north end of the island. Here a circle of sticks strung with feathers, called maro, surrounded the ahu where each rongorongo priest wore a feathered hat and recited his tablet with occasional corrections and elaborations by the elders. If the reader made a glaring mistake a child was instructed to lead him away by the ear with, “are you not ashamed, to be taken out by a child?”[iv] After a good session the chief gave the readers each a chicken (Wolff. 1945. P. 3). From Anakena, the bird symbolism continued up to the Tangata-manu Bird-man Ceremony at Orongo village.
Tangata-manu: the Bird-Man Egg Hunt Ritual
During the month of September a procession of men carrying the ceremonial oars called, Ao, and woman wearing the ceremonial neck ornaments called, Reimiro, proceeded to the summit of Rano Kao. Rano Kao is the largest and southern most volcano on Easter Island. At the summit they reached the ceremonial village of Orongo Inside one of the stone houses is the moai statue called, “Hao Hakanana’ia”. Routledge gives its name meaning, “the wave turns over and breaks” (Routledge. 1917. P. 342) or the Master Wave Breaker. The most common translation of Hao Hakanana’ia is the hidden or stollen friend. In these houses, and the ‘house of Hoa Hakanana’ia’, the tangata rongorongo would fast and pray for the success of the tangata manu egg hunt.
While the tamariki ao and tamahina reimiro prayed outside the orongo houses, the hopu swam to the island of Hotu Nui and waited in a cave for the mata tara birds to lay their eggs. This cave was divided equally between the tribes of Ko-tuu and Hotu-iti just as Orongo’s 46 houses were divided among the Tohunga priests. It is small enough that the birdmen would be huddled like birds while waiting for the eggs. The winner of the egg race was the one who retrieved the first egg laid by the Sooty Tern. The bird-man took his egg and stood on the northern tip of Motu Nui island and cried, “Shave your head, you have got an egg.” Just under the village of Orongo is a cave facing the islet with ‘listeners’ who can hear the winner. The cave is called, Haka-ronga-manu or ‘Cave of Listening for the Birds’, which draws another parallel between the recitation of the tablets and the tangata-manu ceremony together with the initial tattooing rite. Do the tattooing patterns carved on those celebrating the Tangata-manu ceremony contain messages found on the Rongorongo boards? It is important to examine the Rongorongo writing boards while answering these questions. In chapters below, it will become evident that the carvings on the writing boards match various tattoo designs just as these carvings appear on the back of moai Hoa Hakanana’ia.
This Christianizing of Rapa Nui may have been influenced by the early elder named Rega Varevare a Te Niu of Poike who had a vision he shared with the entire island the day before his death: A wooden house will arrive at Tarakiu (near Vaihu), a barge will arrive, animals will arrive with the faces of eels (horses), golden thistles (poporo) will come, and the Lord will be heard in heaven.” Soon after his death the first missionaries arrived and nearly the entire island converted.
Hoa Hakanana’ia: the First Bird-man
These carvings on Hoa’s back hidden in the Orongo house help unravel as an organic whole the mystery, the written language[v], the moai statues, the ceremony and the mythology[vi] of Easter Island. Therefore this research can explore Easter Island’s statues, writing and rituals as produced and practiced together within a single cultural framework.[vii] For example, the winning Birdman’s head is shaven much like the heads of the moai at the Rano Raraku quarry. When the shaven Birdman begins his fast at the Orohie house beside this quarry his head is covered in a red mixture. Does this red covering also correspond with the red tufa hats placed on some of the moai on the ahu platforms?
Figure: Moai statue on ahu platform with red tufa stone hat
Hoa Hakanana’ia produces this organic symmetry between the tangata-manu egg hunt, the moai statues and the rongorongo tablets from the following perspectives:
i. the moai’s location in the Orongo village
ii. the moai’s name compared with Polynesian mythologyand language
iii. the moai’s back carvings expressing Easter Island ritual.
i. The Moai’s Location – Orongo Village
The location of the moai statue of Hoa Hakanana’ia rests on Rano Kao high above the crater’s deep swamp. From this kilometer high location the stone moai was buried half-way in one of Orongo houses of the tanagata-manu ritual[viii].
The race involved a descent of 1000 meter cliff on the south side of Rano Kao. Once at sea level the contestant would swim a few kilometers to Motu-nui. In the largest cave was a picture of a large power oar or rapa oar, called an Ao (Métraux, 1971, p. 332) carried up to Orongo by previous the winner of the egg hunt. This power or Ao group, would reside at the north slope of Ranu Kao at Mataveri. Also, in the caves there were bones and crypts mostly removed or taken to museums along with a moai statue lying down, called Titihanga-o-te-henua. Métraux adds that this moai statue marked the boundary between Ko-Tuu and Hotu-iti. The Rongorongo elders praying at Orongo were called, koro-hua and divining priests called, ivi-atua. Métraux describes how food was prepared in earth ovens; some food was sent to the hopu; some food was given to the priests to consecrate to the gods, Haua and Makemake, with these sacred words: ka too ma Haua, ma Makemake. The eating of the god ritual may have been the original ceremony at Mataveri, which became desecrated by a way-word group or priest into the malignant rites of cannibalism and human sacrifice.[ix] The majority of Indigenous cultures had myths and legends disapproving of these corruptions in sacred ritual, Easter Island included, which confirms that cannibalism was not an element of the original rituals. The victory egg was presented by the hopu to the tangata-manu at Orongo. His house near Rano Raraku, was called, Orohie.[x]
Why make statues? Polynesia funeral ceremonies for chiefs and priests involved the raising of their canoe or a great stone, called a Standing Up Rod or tiki (Tregear, 1891, tiki). This funeral stone marked the sacred Standing Place or ahu, is where the spirit could sing ancient incantations learned from the ancestors to protect the living descendants of the land. There was a firm belief in the afterlife, in spiritual beings and a belief in the influence of the deceased and heavenly beings on the living (Fornander, 1969, pp. 83-85). The purpose of the moai was for coming generations to call to mind the ancestor it represented. Once the deceased was remembered with affection by recalling his sacred songs, the living would be protected from evil spirits, evil omens or anyone trying to invade their land (Barthel, 1978, pp. 274-276). The bird became the natural symbol for these spirits that sore above the island to the stars and ever call out their prayers for their island children.
Figure: Sacred gravesite Ahu platform where moai statues stand
Figure: Ahu gravesite includes a larger ceremonial area
Inside the crater, Raro-Ranaku, are the 46 bald moai, which must confirm the original number of contestants due to the like number of Orongo stone prayer houses (Métreux, 1971, p. 336). Those on the side of the crater have been carved to represent various stages of transformation, lying down or in transit. Others have been set on the platforms, some with the red volcanic tufa hats (Métreux, 1971, p. 31). Some are scattered over the middle of the island much like milestones to help apportion the island to the clans. Also worthy of notice are the eyes inlaid with shells once the moai has been placed upon the ahu platform (EISP, 2010) to signify being enlightened in the afterlife. That is, the tohunga priest who knew the incantations during life, was given a special designation as wananga (lit. knowledgeable one) or spirit guide after death (Tregear, 1891, tohunga, wananga).
Figure: Moai statues raised up on the Ahu plattforms have eyes inlaid with shells
The location of each moai is significant. There is 887 moai mapped on Island surveys. 288 originally stood on sacred platforms, called ahu[xi]. Several are scattered on paths, while others remain inside and outside of the quarry crater, Rano Raraku. During the decipherment of the Small Reimiro tablet, the brothers of Maui and Maui-tiki-tiki from broader Polynesian were discovered in the Rongorongo carvings. More amazingly, their names defined the location of the statue moai of Easter Island (see the chart and map below; also see Maui’s Ball Game: the Tattoo Soothing Chant chapter).
Table 2: The moai statues corresponding to Maui and his brothers of Polynesian lore
Brother of Maui (Polynesian Location of Moai Statues
dialect – English) .
Maui-mua / Maui - In front of Seven Moai in front of the ancient village
Maui-roto / Maui – Inside Moai inside the volcano Rano Raraku
Maui-waho / Maui – Outside Moai outside the volcano Rano Raraku
Maui-pae / Maui – Platform Moai standing on the platforms
Maui-taha / Maui – Side Moai laying on their side
Maui-potiki/tikitiki / Maui of the Topknot Moai atop Rano Kao buried half-way
in an Orongo prayer house. (Hoa Hakananai’a)[xii]
The 46 bald headed and unfinished moai inside Rano Raraku correspond to 46 Orongo houses and 111 Bird-men carved on the Orongo rocks correspond to 111 moai statues finished and also on the inside of Rano Raraku. Indigenous worldview regards it no mere coincidence that the number of Rapa Nui survivors of the colonial slave raids was 111. It’s not about harbouring a grudge for past and present injuries, its about giving a voice to the voiceless.
Figure: Map of Moai statue and Ahu temple platform distributions
The winning Birdman residing at Orohie was given all his meals by his own clan and gift offerings from all other families (Barthel, 1971, p. 336). He was percieved as the hatchling of the egg he found representing his own identity that is nourished by the community and the land. With his head shaven and painted red, the chick was washed in Rano Raraku’s crater lake, fed and grown spiritually at the Orohie fasting house for one year in order to become a full grown birdman. This passage rite enabled the apprentice to journey across his own life to better serve his people and to eventually meet his Standing Rod Place at death. That is, the one year fast in the Rano Raraku house can be compared to an incubation in an egg. As this year ends, the Birdman resumes his life as usual and another takes his place. Thus, there is forever a life giving force carved out at Rano Raraku. When he dies he is returned to the Orohie house at Ranu Raraku as if to become the walking stones, which were quarried, moved and set at their Standing Place about the island.[xiii] The Rongorongo writing tablets offer clear symbolism representing birdmen at their various stages of formation in funerary chants interpreted in the chapters below.
Why is it significant that a mere 111 Rapa Nui survived the colonial slave raids?
This detailed description of the Birdman ritual is given to clarify the relationship of the islander to the Standing Up Rods or moai statues throughout the island. They represent the important ancestors whose lives were to be emulated. As the tradition of placing the standing stones developed, so did the birdman ritual. The egg tied to the forehead resembles Hoa Hakanana’ia buried in Orongo, which in tern resembles Maui buried in the top-knot of his mother, Taranga. Hoa, then, is Maui-tiki-tiki, which means, Maui in the top-knot (Tregear, 1891, taranga, maui).
Maui Potiki’s mission as Hoa Hakanania’a is to be our hidden friend in the top-knot of Orongo (the Listening Place) above the Rano Kao crater. He is Maui-nukarau (deceitful Maui) there to trick not humanity, but Death itself (Tregear, 1891, maui). A Polynesian proverb states, Ko Maui tinihanga, Maui of many devices. In broader Oceanic lore, Maui found a way to trick death when he traveled through the Underworld, stole the fire, noosed the Sun, pulled up the islands and finally died at the second door of the Underworld (Tregear, 1891, maui). He died when the goddess of the Underworld was awakened by the laughter of the fairies who watched Maui comically pass through her body. Therefore, it is said, He Maui whare kino, Maui of the evil house. There he is named, Maui-i-toa and Maui-i-atamai, Maui the brave and Maui the kind, who, in Hoa Hakanana’ia, was still trapped at Orongo inside the House of Death, which was the goddess of the Underworld, the Rano Kao pit.[xiv]
There is more evidence that Hoa Hakananai’a wrapped in the house of the Orongo, is Maui-tiki-tiki wrapped in the wisdom hair of his own Mother, Taranga. Tregear gives the meaning of taranga as a point or a thorn. Legend tells that she throws Maui into the sea wrapped in her pointed top-knot, her thorn, to be nourished by Mu and Weka. It is possible that this point is the first island, Motu kao-kao, (the needle), that the Bird-men swim past to get to the bird eggs on the island Motu Nui. Motu kao-kao, is the rib or thorn shaped island once the Birdman decend to (weka) and hear the hum (mu) of the sea. Maui’s mother is also said to throw his son into a thorn bush, not an uncommon plant inside the crator Rano Koa (Tregear, 1891, maui, taranga). The parallels are significant.
Since the hopu egg hunt contestant is only a servant of the chief he represents, the race is of critical importance to him. That is, if the hopu grasps or steals the egg, as his name implies, he has been set free by his stolen friend, Hoa Hakanana’ia, who is Maui, meaning the life. This Birdman’s freedom to a higher status is confirmed by his ceremonial washing in the Rano Raraku crater lake at the beginning of the year long fast in the sacred Orohie house. In broader Polynesia, the term hoa not only means ‘friend’, but also ‘to chip away at’. In early Rapa Nui, hoa means friend, master, to cast away and to confess wrongdoing. The egg hunt winner gives the egg to his chief, called the Hoa manu or Bird Master. Therefore, the freedom won by Hoa Hakanana’ia is passed to the Hoa manu who gives this freedom to the Birdman contestant in exchange for the new found egg. The Birdman is then cast away (hoa) from the top-knot of Orongo to be chipped away at (hoa) the statue making quarry. The early Rapa Nui have a saying, he hoa I te ta’u, meaning to confess to a crime committed long ago by writing it on the Rongorongo tablets. The ta’u is the confession chant found on the tablet itself. Given that there is a Tuhuga ta or tablet reciting priest interceding for the success of the Birdman, his freedom must not only involve a higher social status, but also an expiation from a former fault. The purpose he was a slave of a chief was due to his or his ancestors defeat in battle. Being a former enemy of the chief, he has now won for the chief a new relationship as hoa or friends. All former debts are settled, the war is over. Therefore, the Tangata Manu was an important ritual in maintaining peace on this island that had a history of tribal warfare. How do these parallels between Rapa Nui ritual and Polynesian mythology further play out on the Easter Island writing boards?
ii. The Moai’s Name – Hoa Hakananai’a
Hoa Hakanana’ia as the Hidden or Stolen Friend is the central figure of the central ritual of the egg hunt of Rapa Nui. Given that the entire community is taken up by the chase of a single bird-egg, this springtime ceremony must be a celebration of the fertility of the Earth. In Tregear’s Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (1891), it is Maui stuck inside the throat of the goddess of death, named Hine-nui-te-po. Maui is killed by her when awakened at the laughter of the on-looking bird, Ti-waka-waka. Is this Ti-waka-waka (the enduring canoe), the bird laughing at the death of Maui, also the winner of the bird-egg hunt (Tregear, 1891, ti-wai-waka)? He laughs who stole the life of Maui stuck in the volcano of death as the statue Hoa Hakanana’ia. The celebration is passed onto the chief who as the Hoa manu (Bird Master) begins a ceremonial dance with the first egg. The chief dances and laughs like Ti-waka-waka in the Polynesian myth. Ti-waka-waka literally means Enduring Canoe and is the model for the head of each household on Rapa Nui, since the early houses are shaped like canoes. The Birdman, then, represents every person on the island. This canoe house is represented in the figure of the sacred icons below.
Figure: sacred icons from Rapa Nui ancestral cave
The icons belong in the sacred ancestral cave passed down the generations of a Rapa Nui family. On the right the Milky Way is represented by the Long Fish, Ikaroa. The fish rests on six balls representing the stars. A canoe shaped Rapa Nui house rests atop the fish. The tail of the fish contains the sacred umu oven with an opening for the spirit of the offering to pass through. The fish of Ikaroa or the Milky Way represented the underworld where the ancestors pass through at death as stars in the sky. This is the same goddess of death that Maui passed through and died, caught in the opening at the other end. Polynesian lore speaks of Paekia or One Door House, as the water monster that killed by drowning the priests of old. There is also an ancient deity, called Ruatapu or the Sacred Two Door House.
These sacred icons play out the sacred family life of Polynesia in their own daily feasting, where a portion of the umu oven is always offered to the Creator. Maui enters the one door house of death. The family home contains one door as an acknowledgement of the reality of life, where everyone who is born will one day die. At death, the journey with Hoa Hakanana’ia will continue through the jaws of the Great Fish, Ikaroa. Maui, or the Life, opens a second door when he dies at the laughter of Ti-waka-waka, the Enduring Canoe. The family home is the Enduring Canoe flipped over. Such is the initial means of shelter for a wayfinding clan who have arrived to a new land. The family umu oven daily celebrates the feast of Maui’s offering. The Tangata-Manu yearly participates in the freedom and life given by Maui as the hidden friend of Orongo village, Hoa Hakanana’ia. Therefore, when Maui steals the flame from the underworld goddess, he is offering the perpetual torch for the ancestors underworld canoe; when Maui nooses the sun at dawn, he is offering enlightenment in daily family life and for the repose of the spirit at death.
The sacred icon on the left side of the above figure is the goddess of death carrying Ikaroa to the offering at Rano Kao, the sacred site that reflects the second door of the underworld. In Rapa Nui lore, an old woman offers the first tuna at the base of Rano Kao.
Together, the icons are related in the story William Thompson recorded when Ure Vaeiko was given a photo of Tablet E. A fisherman’s house was added a fowl house made of 100 crescent shaped stakes. Birds captured in a war of revenge for death of a relative of the chief would be stored in this fowl house. While offering to the sky, the warriors repeated, “May we be killed in battle if we neglect to worship the Great Spirit.” Offering was made to the god of feathers, Era Nuku, whose wife was Manana Take, from the skies. She visited a land shaped like a giant and beautiful fish. Nuku kept the fish and was forbidden to swim in the sea. In that beautiful land Turaki listened to the voice of the fowl and feed them with watery food. “Where is our ancient queen? It is known that she was transformed into a fish that was finally caught in the still waters. A fish that had to be tied to the rope of heros… brought for food to our Great King…laid upon a dish that rocked this way and that. The same that afterwords formed the corner of the stone walk that led to the house of the Great Chief. (Ure Vaeiko recited Apai, after viewing tablet E, Keiti[xv]). Nuku is the Polyensian deity of the underworld who made tunnels under the earth.
Figure: Caves of Rapa Nui formed by escaping volcanic gasses
Consider how Easter Island lore expands on the legends of Hoa and Maui: There is another trickster caught in a hole and his name is Ure. Ure cries from a cave until the girl, Uka, goddess of the moon, provides rain to the island.[xvi] Consider Maui’s fire from below, which caused a deluge and Hine-nui-te-po, the night goddess who floated on the great deluge. Together they helped produce the first man and the first woman (Tregear, 1891, Hineahua, Hineahuone, Hinenuitepo). Ure, the shape-shifter, also changes into a talking yellow root (Barthel,1978, 132), watered by Uta, the moon. The yellow rays of the Sun are called, te taura a Maui, which means, the ropes of Maui (Tregear, 1891, maui). There is an important story of the sacred skull of Hotu Matua, Easter Island’s original man or migrator. Ure Honu found this skull in his banana plantation. The skull was painted with yellow-root and wrapped in bark cloth. Ure hung it in his new house (Barthel, 1978, 221). Fischer, in Rongorongo – The Easter Island Script, mentions the use of banana leaves and bark to write the Easter Island Rongorongo[xvii] script. It is possible, then, that Ure, the talking yellow root, was telling the incantations of Rongorongo, produced in part by the fertility of the banana plantation, in part by Hotu Matua, the first ancestor who taught the writing, and in part by the sacred incantations used by the Rongorongo priests, called tuhungu ta.
“One of the most sacred responsibilities of the tuhungu ta seems to have been the chanting of the rongorongo inscriptions at Mata Ngarahu – the sacred precinct at the ceremonial village of ‘Orongo at the outer rim of the volcano Rano Kau – during the annual Birdman cult ceremonies.”[xviii]
How this Rongorongo applies to the carvings on the back of Hoa Hakananai’a will be presented in the next section.
That is, the connection between Hoa, Ure and Maui is also significant in relation to the mythology of stones on Easter Island. The first moai statues on the Island were placed on either side of the cave of Ure (Barthel, 1978, pp. 261-2). As written above, the stones represent the standing up rods, or tiki, found all over Polynesia. They represented deceased chiefs, priests or artisans (Barthel, 1978, p. 261). If Hoa Hakanana’ia is in fact representative of the trickster, Maui, then perhaps, the word moai is a dialectic variation of maui (see chart above of Maui and his brothers).[xix]
Taking a look at the broader Polynesian significance of the name reveals more about this hidden Maui, Hoa Hakananai’a. Hoa means friend, but also means spouse, companion, to divide, to charm the ground over which one is going to pass and it even means to break a shell (Tregear, 1891, hoa). The birdmen are not to break the shell on their journey from Orongo to Motonui where they find the egg and journey back again. The egg is put in a little basket tied to the forehead (Métraux, 1971, p. 332). This egg will then be cracked open and nourished by Hoa, but not at Orongo, the top-knot above the pit of death; at Rano Raraku, the quarry of life where the moai were fashioned (Métraux, 1971, p.337). The birdmen imitate this pattern of carving by tattooing to become like Hoa their companion. Hoa was a true friend of the early islanders, and it was the mythology, tied to the stonework, written on the tablets and shared in the legends, that brought that stone moai to life.
Hakanana’ia means stolen or hidden[xx]. But is this Rapa Nui hero, Hakanana’ia also named in broader Polynesia? His name does transfer to the name of certain Polynesian heros, such as Hakawa, Kanawa and Kanae.
Hakawa’s fame spread after his chants defeated the wooden head talisman, of Puhi a Puarata-Tautohito, the head that killed thousands (Tregear, 1891, hakawa). Therefore, it is possible that Hoa Hakanana’ia is indeed buried in the head of the guardian of death, and she is defeated by Hakanana’ia incantations, read by the tungata ta from the rongorongo tablets.
Kanawa was a deity who retreated to a hill surrounded by fairies who let him live only because he offered his sacred jewels as utu or payment. The fairies were only able to take the shadows of the jewels, their substance remained. This utu is elsewhere referred to as very sacred incantations found in the Underworld to give great mana or power to the living (Tregear, 1891, kanawa, utu). So it is possible that Maui as Hoa Hakanana’ia does not die. He continues as the hidden deity, while his chants resound in the yearly Tangata Manu ceremony. In the mythology, Maui noosed the Sun. It is likely that this noosing of the Sun is related to Maui’s steeling of the fire of the Underworld deity, Matuika (Tregear, 1891, maui, matuika). To escape the Underworld deity, he shape-shifted from a fish into a hawk and burned a path for others to follow and rise. Therefore, the Birdman ritual of capturing the eggs by the mana of the rongorongo incantations, appears to correspond with the broader Polynesian myth of the fairy capturing the jewels (or the eggs) of utu payment along with the incantations of their sponsors who pray from Orongo while their servants swim for the eggs.
Kanae is the fish who came out of the Underworld house with the fish fairies, the Ponaturi. All these where killed by the brightness of the Sun, but Kanae stole away and hid in the sea by the mana power of leaping (Tregear, 1891, kanae, ponaturi). Kanae, then, is possibly a type of Maui or Hoa, the first one, to escape death and hide in the sea. Is this power of Kanae to leap in the sea the same power given to the Birdman who finds the first egg and can swim much faster than usual back to Orongo from Motu-nui?
Hoa Hakanana’ia is the hidden stone moai and friend. He is the companion at Orongo, the Listening Place (Tregear, 1891, rongo). Orongo is nearly a kilometer above sea level. This is too high to hear the dangerous wave breakers of death below. This is where Maui, the Life; Hoa, the Friend; Ure, the fertile one; hears only the incantation read off of the Rongorongo tablets, the call of the Sooty Tern. Hoa Hakanana’ia, the trickster whose charms, jewels and chants burned a pathway through Underworld for all others.
iii. The Moai’s Back Carvings – A Mystery Cracked Open
Refer to the diagram images of front and back view of the Hoa Hakananai’a moai drawn by C. Arevalo Pakarati (British Museum.org.).
Based on the mythology and definitions surrounding the place names and location of the moai at Orongo, the following description of the carvings on Hoa’s back is presented. The carving contains an underworld rope rising from the bottom of the back. The rope is divided, opening into a rainbow with the Sun rising above it. Then twin birds at the back shoulders of the Moai statue, have broken wings, a broom shaped foot and a wedge shaped foot. These birds lift a smaller bird that is calling beneath a ‘W’ shape flanked by two Rapa oars. There is a third Rapa oar on the left ear. Some of these carvings appear as glyphs on the Rongorongo tablets, such as, the Rapa oars and birds.
There are other glyphs carved onto the back of the Hoa Hakanana’ia statue. Who did this statue represent? Why was this statue hidden in the Orongo village? What do all these symbols mean? Represented is the solar bird deity being raised by two birds with broken wings. As mentioned above, in Polynesian mythology, the two birds with broken wings are named Mu and Weka.
The mythic stories tell of Mu and Weka raising and nourishing the widely known trickster hero, named Maui. In the figure below, notice the well nourished small bird raised by the birds with broken wings. These clues encourages a search for broader Polynesian mythology and their accompanying chants on the Rapa Nui tablets. The Rapa Nui writing boards correspond with the Tangata-manu Egg Hunt and the Maui statues by telling the mythical story of broader Polyesnia. This story is expressed in passage-rites and their accompanying chants that weave a person’s identity into the land. This person and their clan learn to develop a harmonious relationship with all other living creatures even by immitating them.
Figure: Back of Rapa Nui statue with broken wings from broader Polynesian lore
For instance, the Tangata-manu calls for each contestant to become a bird-person. These bird-people are tattooed at Orongo much like the statue is carved on its back and the tablets are carved with signs sung by the tohunga to give mana power to their clan’s contestant. If the tohunga ta priests are reading their incantations carved on the rongorongo tablets for the success of the egg-hunt from the houses in orongo, then Hoa Hakanana’ia, half buried in one such house, is relied upon as their most powerful moai statue medium.
We find the brothers of Maui correspond with the statues all over the island. The statue of Orongo is carved with marking directly associated with Maui and his caregivers with broken wings. The statue is buried atop the volcano, much like Maui-potiki is buried in the top-knot of his mother Taranga. Therefore, Hoa-hakanana’ia, our hidden friend, could be none other than Maui of greater Polynesian mythology. A thorough investigation of the Rapa Nui tablets will offer weight to this theory as the Rongorongo is deciphered in terms of the chants found in Rapa Nui and Polynesian mythology.
 Ahu: a sacred mound, burial site and/or the platforms where the rows of moai statues were placed.
 Tangata rongorongo: man of the listening (boards).
 Tangata manu: bird-man
 Tamariki ao & tamahina reimiro: sons with the ceremonial oars and daughters with the neck ornaments.
 Hopu: the servant of the bird-man entering in the tangata-manu egg hunt. Hopu literally means to grasp or steal.
[i] The Hoa Hakananai'a is a moai (Easter Island statue) housed in the British Museum in London. The name Hoa hakanani'a is from the Rapa Nui language; it means (roughly) "stolen or hidden friend." It was removed from Orongo, Easter Island on 7 November 1868 by the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze, and arrived in Portsmouth on 25 August 1869. i. Van Tilburg, J. A. Hoa Hakananai'a (British Museum Press 2004), p.38. ii. Van Tilburg, Jo Anne. (2006). Remote Possibilities: Hoa Hakananai'a and HMS Topaze on Rapa Nui. British museum Research Papers. ISBN 0861591585. iii. Van Tilburg, J. A. Hoa Hakananai'a (British Museum Press 2004), p. iv. Van Tilburg, J. A. Hoa Hakananai'a (British Museum Press 2004), p.7. When this moai Hoa, stolen by death, was removed from its location on Orongo and taken over the breakers into a ship, the entire island, now converted to Christianity cheered. They were not cheering at the new band of thieves, they were cheering at the mythical tale that came to its fulfillment that day.
[ii] Routledge, S & Routledge K. (1917). The Bird Cult of Easter Island. Folklore. Vol 28. No. 4. Pp. 337-355. Taylor & Francis Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.. Retrieved Oct. 26, 2010 from http://wwwtor.org. P. 339.
[iii] Wolff, W. (1945). The mystery of the Easter Island script. The Journal of Polynesian Society. Vol. 54. No. 1. Pp. 1-38. P. 2.
[iv] Wolff (1945). Ibid. P. 3.
[v] Tregear, E. (1891). Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary. London: Lyon and Blair, Lambton Quay. Tregear’s work is an essential resource for this article, since he was able to preserve as well as a dictionary could some of the common vocabulary, myth and ceremony that existed across Polynesia prior to European contact. At the same time, Tregear was able to honor the distinct elements of each island group.
[vi] Mythology from the perspective of Karen Armstrong in A Short History of Myth (2005), which counts on the flexibility in myth to enhance our everyday lives as apposed to a more conservative confinement of myth.
[vii] Fornander, A. (1969). An Account of the Polynesian Race – Its Origins and Migrations. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company: Publishers, pp. 1-2.
[viii] Métraux, A. (1971). Ethnology of Easter Island. Honolulu, Hawaii: A Bishop Museum Press Reprint, p. 331.
[ix] Routledge & Routledge (1917). Ibid. P. 340.
[x] Keeping in mind that Orongo means the Listening Place where the high call of the Sooty Tern can be heard and Orohie means the Calling Place, where Oro is the call of a young bird. Métraux, Ibid, p. 332.
[xi] Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) Official Website, retrieved February 18th, 2010.
[xii] From Easter Island Statue Project Official Website
[xiv] Tregear, Ibid, maui.
[xvi] Barthel, T. S. (1978). The Eighth Land – The Polynesian Discovery and Settlement of Easter Island. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, p. 261.
[xvii] Fischer, S. R. (1997). Rongorongo – The Easter Island Script – History, Traditions, Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
[xix] Dansereau, J. (Unpublished from 2007). The Tattoo Soothing Chant of Maui, the Sweeping of the Stars: a Definitive Decipherment of the Easter Island Tablets.
[xx] British Museum.org. Hoa Hakananai'a: Stolen or Hidden Friend. Retrieved: 09.02.2008.
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||I visited here in January of 2000, the first month of the new Millennium.|
A suffocating storm stranded us on shore, chilled to the bone. Suddenly the people of Easter Island showed up in cars and took us to their homes for shelter and food. I will never forget and cherish their hospitality!
I bought an 11" magnificent wood statue - beautifully carved face-on figure and exquisite "bird-man" story symbols on the back in celebration of life and the Third Millennium. Thank you Easter Islanders!